Saturday, August 13, 2016

What's a Little Triangulation among Friends?

 Measuring distances between two points seems simple enough; any measuring device such as a yardstick, surveyor's transit, ruler or even a piece of string will do for starters. That is, if the two points are stationary. And not people.

The fact of two individuals being a foot or so apart becomes an immediate matter of relativism, in which their past and present attitudes toward one another apply. One individual may, at a given moment, be a foot away from another person in terms of physical proximity, but the same individual may have reached some point of impending rupture with respect to some trait, say lack of promptness, or other aspects of untrustworthiness, and the present activity, the deal breaker, would override any physical proximity.

Thanks to trigonometry and geometry, another method of measurement emerges, using triangles instead of mere tape measures, this method for determining  the location of a third point. Thus we have the concept of triangulation, introduced not only to the physical sciences but as well to such man-made concepts as logic, philosophy, even social sciences and psychology.

Given the useful tools of trigonometry and geometry for determining relationships between various points, you find yourself considering triangulation, or the use of triangles to determine and, indeed, measure positions as a useful tool to apply to story. 

Early in your consideration of triangulation as a potential for measuring the physical and emotional states of various persons within a specific story, you saw how, logical as the concept of triangulation is, it remains nevertheless a human form of measuring events and positions, just as story is a human form of measuring events and positions.

Without humans to apply triangulation, there would be no need for it because the world without humans was evolving on its own time span, although with no humans to record it, nevertheless with consequences and a potential for the movement out of the ocean onto land that produced a number of species including our own.  

Without humans, the occasional band of pack-traveling animals might use some form of geometry or triangulation to trap an evening's meal, but the matters of geography, trigonometry, and story would have to wait until humans came along with an evolved need for such tools.

Story is certainly a tool; it can help us better visualize observed behavior. Story can also help us profit from past experience and triangulate with some--but not entire--potential into a future point where, for instance, if we don't save some of these acorns for times when the world is covered with snow and ice and when a number of roaming species either migrate or find ways to go dormant, then we will be screwed.

The more we understand ourselves as a species and as distinct individuals, the more we have use for triangulation because, as our information and observations increase, the greater the likelihood we'll resort to some behavior that might not be to our longterm advantage. 

Like the early bird, we may indeed get the worm but we are reaching a time when we need to better consider what we are going to do with all these worms. We may well discover we've been missing a number of possibilities. We may also, in our desire to be the early bird, missing out on something of greater survival value than worms.

You've been trying for over fifty years to teach yourself how to communicate, first and foremost with yourself, although you did not know this at the time. You thought of story as a recipe, in which you added equivalents of flour, eggs, baking soda, perhaps even yeast. The results were as effective as most recipes from most cookbooks. It took your mother, who was more or less forced into cooking, to achieve a true understanding of the chemistry of elements needed to produce a varied array of appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and, ah, yes, deserts.

Through observation and triangulation, you've moved beyond the strict adherence to recipe and come closer to the place your mother was when she merged with the chemistry of the understanding of the elements of food.

You are out in the streets, the coffee shops, the class rooms, the bookstores, and the untrodden alleyways of your imagination, as alert for angles as you were that first time you thought you were ready for a custom-made pool cue.

Friday, August 12, 2016

It's Your Loss

The younger we are, the more inconsolable we are in the face of loss, squirreling away significant losses, compartmentalizing them, hopeful of forgetting them, but in reality burying them in the midst of new targets of acquisitions. 

We go forth from such times of loss, triumphant in our belief that new acquisitions will bury old losses. But then we reach the point where loss confronts us, daring us to cope with it, understand it, come to terms with it.

This is about the time when we recognize we are at mid-game, the point where we have lost as much or possibly more than we have gained; we are operating at a deficit of possessions, whether those are teeth, hair, ability to see and thus hit a curve ball, ambition, imagination.

Among the things you've lost:

A Buck pocket knife with wooden inlay handle

A red child's ball with a row of white Scottie dogs

A plastic, bugle-shaped toy instrument, used to perform in recitals designed to irk your sister

A splendid yellow Stipula Castoni fountain pen

A Duncan super yo-you, white with blue stipple

A lower molar


A copy of a book with an autographed front cover of the book as designed by the artist, Sam Francis

Two stunning human friends

An edgy blue tick hound named Edward

A cat who gave up his original owner to come take his chances with you

A draft of a story about prehistoric humans you've been trying to replicate for twenty years

An orange-and-blue shirt that disappeared after one wearing

An autographed copy of a work of nonfiction, written by a friend

There are, to be sure, other things which will clamor for attention once you pursue the path of writing about lost things. But doing so will remind you as well of time you have lost due to procrastination, toward what you will call casual and deliberate engagement, and growth that was either hoped for or unanticipated, reminders that time is a measurement, not an agenda or a sentient thing,rather a means of perspective.

In the process, you have and will continue to gain perspective. a driver in metaphor, who sees his youth in the rear view mirror, and is aware of things found along the way toward a final destination that outweigh the things lost in the tangible things they've provided.

There is no guarantee that loss and gain balance out in your life or those of others. But there is opportunity, in its way every bit as impersonal as time, yet relevant to the human condition. There is no guarantee, either for life or story to arrive at one or more successful destinations, but there is awareness that each, life and story, are potentials for starting points, losses, some measure of accommodation, and some manner of closure.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Rock of Ages

When the narrator of a story tells you, either in effect or so many words, I strained my six-foot-three-inch frame to reach the shelf where the box containing the valuable files lay, you can say of that narrator with great certainty, "You're so nineteenth century."

You could say a few more things, such as "over the top," and "exaggerated," but to those in the know, which is to say quality readers, quality writers, and experienced editors, "so nineteenth century" is quite enough, does not, in fact, require an exclamation point, which, in its own way, is every bit a relic from those distant times.

Things have changed. Much as you'd like to try your hand at portraying the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, you'd look for ways to move him into the early twenty-first century, perhaps with gestures and pacing to get him up to some relevant speed, which is a different speed than a convenient, descriptive speed. 

Perhaps you'd work on a way to show the stage manager's angst at having had such a descriptive role, considering all the high school senior class plays he's appeared in, describing a wonderful story rather than reflecting or evoking it.Perhaps you'd try to find a way to portray an individual rather than a nameless character who is in effect a substitute for the author.

That's right; sometimes writers can figure no other way to "freight" or "filter" or convey a story other than to have some person appear in the guise of another character, his or her only purpose to serve as a mash-up of a person connected with the story and a Greek chorus or even the wonderful rendition Derek Jacobi gave in the Kenneth Branagh film version of Henry V, appearing as he did in a floppy duffel coat as the first person we saw on stage.

You're more than familiar with the older approach to narrative, having learned to experience fiction from that authorial presence, telling you what Character A was doing and who Character B reminded Character C of.  Having as well learned to write stories in which you thought nothing of stepping in upon to instruct whoever might choose to read your narratives.

There are a number of books, intended for readers of all ages, out there as reminders of how far back in history story goes, making  for a belief that "Once upon a time," or "In the city of X, there lived an ambitious man named Y" openings are suitable approaches to telling modern short stories, novellas, and novels.

In all your years of pushing story around as though it were some Sisyphean rock, you acquired a sense of the era into which a narrative fit, simply by hearing a few of its paragraphs read aloud, a standard by which you are able to measure such things as time and culture from which the story emerged. Only in recent times have you learned to do your best to keep yourself out to the matter.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Capt. Ahab, Eating a Tuna Sandwich While on Watch for the Whale

 Works in progress can and do have predictable side effects such as insomnia, grouchy responses to cheerful conversation, revision while sleeping, and either a lower or increased attention span. All of these have visited during the current project, along with an unexpected visitor who appears without warning.

The work in progress is a protracted study of novels you recognize as having a significant presence in forging you, your responses, your expectations, and the coming-to-terms awareness of the difference between your earlier dreams and the later reality of what can be best described as Now.

Much of your formal learning has come in the context of the classroom while not having come directly from within the classroom, which is to say you recognize how many times the learning took place after you were banished from a classroom and into some circumstance where some life-altering awareness came into being.

Example: You took for granted the wisdom and scholarship of Jacob Sonderling, the head rabbi of the congregation to which your parents belonged, who presided at the bat mitzvah and wedding of your older sister, and indeed led the congregation when you reached the status of being ritually considered a male member.  

"Why is it I am seeing you here? he asked of you, who stood in his study, aware of an enormity of books written in Hebrew, German, and English. His heavy-lidded eyes scanned some note before him, without doubt an account of why you'd been banished from a class on The Talmud which, among other things had been described as the interpretations God gave Moses for the study of the written law or Torah.

At the time of the offense, you were no less a smarts than you are now, the difference between the then and now being a matter of sophisticated degree. In your memory, your offense was to refer to The Talmud as the equivalent of case notes and scope notes for your culture, from which premise you developed the scornful riposte of the Torah being law books which made males of your culture almost by cultural definition wannabe lawyers. You believe you in fact described the grieved mother, pacing the shoreline below the Santa Monica pier, wailing, "Help, help, my son, the lawyer, is drowning."

Dr. Sonderling was among the first to plant the seed: We are all of us characters within our own drama. On other occasions, when you'd been banished from a classroom, you were given a sheet of lined paper and a letter from the alphabet, say a d of a g, then told you were to stay where you were, which was either the principal or the boy's vice principal, or someone in charge of that one course not on the curriculum, Detention, where you were to remain until you could supply fifty legitimate words beginning with that particular letter.  

Thus you learned that a zarf is the ornamental receptacle for a demitasse cup or the stand for that glorious s-word, samovar, as in a tea maker urn, a skiandoo is a small, single-edged knife, worn with Scottish dress kilt on the same side as the dominant hand..  

You were building chops for future ability at Scrabble where, at a penny a point or even a nickel, you were able to secure beer money in later years. You were also building a nodding mechanism with reading fiction and nonfiction and within those two presences, the ability to become immersed in the text.  "Why," Dr. Sonderling asked you that day in his study, "do you think in our argument is such a key factor? It is our nature to ask, to question, to argue."

And so you have, with much of what you have experienced at first hand, have read, or in some way listened to. But without knowing it, for it is your nature first to trust, then to question, you have become the dramatis personae of your readings, taking on for a time, their characteristics. You have become Capt. Ahab, eating a tuna sandwich before pursuing the whale. You have asked, questioned, and argued, but never enough for the time. 

Revisiting the you who was first influenced by the materials you are now reviewing has made you aware of a major theme in your life, the editing and revision of past experiences and opinions, hopeful you are reaching the point of a reliable and substantial narrative.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Literary Laryngitis: The Narrative Voice Gone Sickly

There have been times when, afflicted with laryngitis, you had difficulty getting the words vocalized. As if by magic, not having a physical voice gave you an exaggerated presence of whatever force or forces that contribute to expression. 

This was surely a lesson to be learned. The question of whether you learned from the lesson is either moot, academic, or existential. Voice, when it returned, was more relieved than anything else.

The matter of Voice has preoccupied you for some years, coming to you as a matter at about the mid point of your teaching at the graduate level, your students being earnest and quirky young men and women, all of whom had gone into considerable debt in order to locate and nurture their own individual voice.

Early on in your teaching career, you understood how the one most benefiting from the experience was you, to the point where you once remarked at a faculty meeting, "If you want to understand a subject, write a book about it or teach a course in it." 

Your intent was clear; you were getting a bonus from teaching others; beyond the connective tissue formed between you and student, there was the connective tissue formed between you and the material demonstrated or, better still, shared.

For the longest time, your voice was disposed to sound like the last reader you'd read and admired, your great fallback or default being the voice of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, which, particularly in the case of SLC, is by no means a small accomplishment.  

And yet, you were not in the craft to become a mimic; you were here to be your own self, however raspy or mono-tone-ous the outcome. Readers with a hankering for story could get the original; why would they want an imitation?

Along with such realizations came the bolts of lightning from acquired wisdom. Imitating another voice was one way to approach taking that voice to task, at first by contriving to sound like it, but then adding a slight exaggeration. Your role model in doing such things was an author who seems to have fallen off the radar screen, the late, lamented, Peter DeVries, who was exactly the sort of satirist you wished to be, one who appeared as a reliable narrator, which is to say a writer whose narratives were credible.

The bolt of lightning that struck quite near you said in effect that Peter DeVries was Twain, except that he was Twain without Twain's outrage, which he had managed to reduce to impatience. Although no stranger to outrage, you are more often impatient than outraged. Thus your forward motion was adjusted. Lead with your strengths, you heard a voice saying. Impatience is your forte.

Thus you came to your voice. If, when in the thoughtful mode of revision, you are not aware of the presence of impatience, you understand how laryngitis has set in, how you must do something to allow the voice to come through. You can introduce a character who is impatient for results. You, yourself, can rewrite the offending material, beginning with a deep sigh and the awareness that you have to go through the scene again to get that proper note.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way

Among the pleasures of browsing a dictionary, you most enjoy the pastime of scanning the larger, unabridged volumes in search of words that have as many as five or six potentials for meanings. 

Second only to your appreciation of portmanteau, or mash-up words such as smog for smoke and fog, your awareness of words with more than one meaning owes a good deal of fond reminiscence to such a word, in fact "funny," and the reasons you were spending 
your early years with dictionaries in the first place.

During your tenure at the Hancock Park Elementary School, 408 South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles,the principal janitor, Mr. Pope, a man who reminded you in appearance and speech of the cartoon character, Popeye, would frequently come upon you, during class hours, sitting outside a classroom or bungalow, on a schoolyard bench.  "I see you were being funny," Mr. Pope said, in recognition of you being sent outside.

Although Hancock Park was, and remains, a favored school venue, your matriculation there was cut short by the return of your parents to the small New Jersey town of their own youth, where the equivalent of Mr Pope reminded you more of the sorts of characters one might find in the Dick Tracy comic strips of the day. The schoolyard benches were the only thing at PS Number Ten, now renamed for a politician you knew by name and sight. "Funny boy, har?" Mr. Czyswicki would say, then mumble something you later realized you were meant to hear. "Cot dom Californy funny boy."

You were not sent outside the classrooms of the now defunct John Howland Elementary School, Providence, R.I,which was more along the atmosphere from John Hancock, to the point where you spent time having to clean out your desk in order to be moved higher along the pecking order of classes, or invited to visit a rather commodious library, from where you were encouraged to borrow books, rather than your then default, the Providence Public Library.

But it was back outside when the shift to Central Beach Elementary, Miami Beach, Florida, came into effect and you were funny there because, with no accent of your own, you stood out like the Californian you were, bewildered by the Florida slowness that was so different from California slowness.

In time, you have been told by any girl or women in whom you had a romantic interest that you were funny, which began to take on the equivalent meaning of "Get lost," or "We could, I suppose," be friends," or the even more exasperating, "Every girl should have a friend who is funny."

Yes, funny is often used as a synonym for strange. Or different, as in "This smells funny." Or contrary, as in "Don't get funny with me." Or prosaic, as in, "I don't see what's so funny here."
Sometimes, funny meant you were approaching some kind of agreement, as in "Funny you should mention that," which also had its downside of being the equivalent response to "In your dreams," or "Don't even think about it."

By the time you finished junior high school, then hurtled full-on into puberty, you saw differing types of individuals about you, all of whom were funny for different reasons. In consequence, you gravitated to persons who were funny in similar ways to your funniness, checking out what seemed like eternal lunch hours in which, like travelers in some package tour, you watched the antics of groups you considered to be more or less funny than your own group.

Many college students are thought to have become rooted in seriousness after their freshman year. Such young men and women at first seemed funny to you because they were already leapfrogging into the seriousness of adulthood, preparing, as you once remarked in a large group, "for adultery," only to be told that was not funny.

A classmate once observed of you that you ought to secure a position on the campus humor magazine because you had such a funny outlook on life. In pursuit of this goal, you became connected with other individuals who, during staff meetings propelled by too much of that universal undergraduate lubricant, beer, admitted to hiding vast quantities of overwhelming seriousness which at times troubled them.

A direct consequence of your work on the campus humor magazine resulted in you being hired to write for a weekly live TV program featuring two popular LA disc jockeys, then, all too soon, being fired for turning in material that caused people to "laugh the wrong way." You were told to loosen up, look for the brighter side, try to see the humor in things.

This was about the time when you began to see the difference between humor and comedy.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow--up? Older?

If age brings wisdom, does the wisdom arrive through the understanding of nuance or the invasion of cynicism.? And what about you; are you any the wiser because you are more aware of the difference between what is said and what is meant? 

Or are you, perhaps, more cynical because you've seen cases where too much insistence on a statement of fact being in fact closer to the truth cause what is professed as truth to be less truthful?

There is little doubt in your mind that your default position has been one of literalness through much of your life; a thing first heard or read means what it says, even  when you have to stretch a bit to get at the truth of the intent. The first time you heard:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

you did not question the it was, indeed brillig.  You took the matter at face value until, caught up in the merriment and mischief of the language, you questioned its entire meaning and context, whereupon you assigned meanings to the other words you did not recognize.

You were so literal of mind that you were gobsmacked with the information, coming to you early in high school, that all the female characters in Shakespeare, including those in Anthony and Cleopatra, which you'd encountered in junior high school, were performed by boys, thus someone of your approximate age and, then, voice, portraying Cleopatra.  This was about the age where you were finding faults beyond reason with your parents and many adult authority figures.

As you write this, there is great probability you are older than Lear was when he asked of his daughters the question regarding the degree of their affection for him.  

This age is no doubt old enough and skeptical if not cynical that the entire matter of the play could have been avoided if Cordelia had not triggered the entire drama by asking of her sisters the question that got them cooking up their answers. Add that how, the question in effect turned Cordelia into a copyeditor or fact checker so far as her own response to Lear when he questioned her about her regard for him.

You also have to do some reaching beyond to consider how the three daughters were portrayed by young boys, perhaps taking on a falsetto or learning their lines before their voices had changed.

Were you to have the opportunity to see a performance of Lear today, say at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, you'd not have to worry about such things; Ragan, Goneril and Cordelia would not be performed by boys. But, were you to see such a performance, you think your takeaway would be to watch yourself for any tendencies within yourself to mistake the stubborn insistence of Lear to hear better explanations with the accuracy of obvious explanations.

This is more about meanings and interpretations than it is about Shakespeare, even though, as you write this, you are aware that Juliet had reasons to think perhaps Romeo had been a bit too insistent in pressing his feelings and that your first experience with seeing the drama performed was a motion picture version, in which Leslie Howard, the actor playing Romeo, was forty-three.